A Magazine by the Society of Professional Journalists

Letters to the Editor

By Quill

EDITOR’S NOTE: The March/April issue contained arguments for and against updating the SPJ Code of Ethics from Steve Buttry and Irwin Gratz, respectively. More feedback is collected on the SPJ Code Words blog, where you can comment as well.

Keep Code of Ethics simple

I’m with Irwin Gratz all the way. The media may change, but journalism does not. The best journalists are guided by instinct. Start restricting their lives on Facebook or how they decide to use information from a dubious source, and you’re killing what makes journalism work.

The greatest codes and standards that guide ethical decision-making are written clearly, simply and for human beings. The 10 Commandments, the U.S. Bill of Rights, and — my personal favorite — Robert Fulghum’s “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten” are encompassing, allowing for the unpredictable, the contradictory, the mutable. In other words, the messy reality of life.

Is there a need to address lack of fact checking, attribution, paper trails, plagiarism, and general ethical slide in journalism? You betcha, particularly online and in infotainment. Mr. Buttry’s suggestions are excellent tools for how to practice journalism. However, his suggested revisions focus on technique, not ethics. It may be shoddy practice to be vague, but it is not necessarily unethical.

More, to update the Code as he suggests asks journalists to be superhuman or inhuman, like the uber-truthful machinery that’s generated this debate. Amending the Code with such nitty-gritty material as what and what not to say on your personal Facebook supposes folks practicing journalism are not professionals capable of judging for themselves. It also undermines the importance of being a journalist in the real world, down in the muck with everybody else. “Journalists, not sources, are responsible for the accuracy of their stories.” In a perfect world, sure. In the real one? Come on.

The ideas put forth by Mr. Buttry certainly need to be integrated into how we practice our craft today. But as for revising the SPJ Code of Ethics, I stand with simplicity. And Robert Fulghum: “Flush.”


Prescott, Ariz.

Workable Code is the important thing

I have no problem with the Code as it exists, nor do I have issues with updating the Code.

For me, the important thing is that we recognize the need for a workable Code and that we constantly remind ourselves how critical it is that we conduct ourselves ethically.

Face it, anytime a journalist has to wonder whether something is ethical, it is probably a good indication that it is not. Yet there are those in society who are ethically bankrupt, so I guess it is good to spell out things.

My vote is to have a very short, concise Code of Ethics and also have an expanded explanation of ways to interpret the basic ethics.

Meanwhile, I salute all open discussion of the topic. We cannot overplay it.


Tucson, Ariz.

Guideposts need relevance

I vote for updating the Code. I think it would be helpful to beleaguered reporters if the guideposts had more specific relevance to some of the newer problems we face.

So many things have changed since the Code was written, starting with vastly reduced job security for reporters!

Sources nowadays have much better resources than a mere reporter to be “spinning” the facts. Guidelines need to reflect the reality that reporters must remain suspicious, while recognizing that with shield laws under siege, and the entire news industry’s business model in chaos, the battle is often unequal.

Most crucially: We are in desperate need of guidelines about how, and when, we may appropriately reveal our own opinions.

I do not see why taking an (inadequate) paycheck from a news organization should strip a person of their right to have — and voice — opinions. Working for a free press should not invalidate one’s own right to free speech. At least, when the church asks its employees to remain celibate and chaste, in return it offers life-time employment! I don’t see anything like that deal on the table for newspaper reporters.

I think it is of paramount importance that reporters, themselves, write up some rules they feel they can live by, as to when and how it is appropriate to voice opinions, and when it isn’t. Then at least there is something to point to if other entities mount a challenge.


Port Washington, N.Y.

Consider other codes as well

I have been a member of SPJ for many years. Almost a decade ago, I helped to revise the National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ code. I have practiced my three-plus professions under three — no really four — codes: an attorney licensed to practice in California and Oregon; a CPA licensed in California; and a journalist. (I am not an active member of the NSNC.)

It may be very relevant for any review/revision committee to line up all four codes for pertinent similarities. At least in theory, if not in practice, all four organizations are dedicated to the pursuit of truth, honesty and justice.

All codes must be timely revisited, particularly in these trying (no, “crazy”) times.


Canby, Ore.

Time for new generation to decide

Hear, hear, Steve Buttry! I agree that the SPJ Code of Ethics absolutely needs an update, and for all the reasons Buttry described.

I was in eighth grade the last time SPJ updated the Code. With all due respect to self-described “old codger” Irwin Gratz, who argues that the Code is just fine as it is, it’s time to let a new generation of journalists go through the exercise of evaluating — and hopefully improving — our industry’s ethical guidelines.

Core journalistic principles may remain the same while technology changes, but we still need serious, formal and frequent discussion about how to better commit ourselves to those values. Buttry calls for clarifications that would more explicitly hold reporters accountable for the work they produce. We should embrace such changes.

At the very least, I’d like my generation of journalists to finally have the opportunity to help lead the discussion about whether those changes are appropriate.

I’d also suggest Gratz revisit his perception of “Web journalism” as a journalistic channel distinct from others. At Honolulu Civil Beat, we produce investigative reporting that can be read, heard on the radio, viewed on TV, watched in videos and photo slideshows and, yes, enjoyed online.

Updating the Code of Ethics isn’t about adapting to the Web, it’s about staying current in a dynamic industry that’s constantly changing, and always will be.


Honolulu, Hawaii

Changes should go even further

I think the Code of Ethics needs to be updated. I very much like the specific changes advocated by Steve Buttry. I think they do not go far enough, however.

Joshua Holland, author of “The Fifteen Biggest Lies About the Economy,” said on a recent appearance on Book TV during questions: The standard of American journalism is not to hold up an idea and suggest that because of certain facts this idea may not be true. He said that the standard of American journalism is to report something someone said and to report what an opposition organization said. Although in practice it may not be even that, with many “journalists” reporting only what someone said or what appeared elsewhere with or often without attribution.

I think because of this we need to add even stronger language to the Code. I propose something along these lines:

“Never report uncritically any statement. Giving the source is not enough. Never report uncritically any statement even if you have an opposing view. Determine independently the truth and falsity of any facts which support or undermine the statements and report the entire story.”


Albuquerque, N.M.

News media right to identify Bartman

What? In the name of ethics, the media should have withheld the name of the Chicago Cubs fan whose reach for a foul ball might have prevented a Cubs catch and changed the course of the 2003 playoffs?

That’s what the case study in SPJ’s new ethics book suggests, as quoted by Fred Brown (March/April 2011). The fan, Steve Bartman, was “a mere spectator,” “a victim of fate,” an inexperienced source whose name the public didn’t need to know and who might have been asked if he wanted to be outed.

Yes, Bartman got threats and police protection at the time, but journalists rightly judged that he wasn’t going to be assassinated. And, while he has remained a private person since, he wasn’t a mere spectator. When he reached for that ball, he became a central actor, a huge public figure, part of the Cubs’ jinx legend.

Names and personalities still make news and are part of our ethic of telling the whole truth as well as is logistically possible. Absent clear and present physical danger, there are few reasons to withhold that information. Embarrassment is not one of them.

Bartman made a mistake, issued a classy apology and became part of baseball lore. Readers — and Bartman himself — deserved to be recorded as a real person, not some anonymous cardboard character.


Maple Plain, Minn.

Don’t stereotype millenials, either

I found it interesting that in an issue with several articles on sensitivity to stereotyping, labeling and putting people in arbitrary groups (March/April 2011), the editors at Quill also decided to run Mike Brannen’s “The Millennial Generation and Ethics” in which Mr. Brannen stereotypes, labels and groups all journalists who happened to have been born after 1979. Stories about millennials are not only trite but also are filled with hyperbole. In fact, research on cohorts show that there are no significant differences among generations except for scores on self-esteem. I resent that because I was born after 1979, Mr. Brannen assumes that I am fine with illegal downloading, ignorant of copyright laws, blindly trust authority and am naive. I do not enjoy being labeled, stereotyped and placed in this arbitrary group.


Frederick, Md.

Convention resolution to consider

Many SPJ members from different regions, mindsets and journalistic persuasions strongly object to the SPJ national board’s decision to “retire” the Helen Thomas Lifetime Achievement Award. We profoundly disagree not only with the decision but with the reasons given for it and with the hasty, non-collaborative and non-transparent way the decision was made.

Several of us from around the country have collaborated to craft a resolution to reinstate the award. It will be presented to delegates at this year’s national convention in New Orleans.

In the spirit of a full, thoughtful and open debate on this defining issue of free expression, we encourage every SPJ member and chapter to read and discuss the resolution before it is presented to the national convention in September. Any member or chapter that wishes to join us as a listed cosponsor of the resolution is invited to email Peter Sussman on behalf of the group at peter@psussman.com. We will also be happy to explain the background of the resolution or answer any questions on it. We welcome all feedback.

The full wording of the resolution has been posted at several sites, among them tinyurl.com/thomas-res and tinyurl.com/ThomasResolution.

On behalf of the drafting committee. All are signing as individuals, not in any official capacity in SPJ or its chapters: